Afghanistan’s Strategic Problem: Lessons from Indian Counterinsurgency

It is no secret that Afghanistan has been recently struggling to deal with suicide terrorism. Earlier in June a series of bombings killed dozens, prompting a surrogate of Chief Executive Abdullah Abdullah to admit “you can’t search everyone.”[1] The government’s seeming admission to the futility of counterterrorism efforts at targeting suicide attacks is underscored by a seemingly endless war against the Taliban, and the over 400 dead in suicide blasts in 2016 alone.[2] While the number of attacks has gone down since their recent peak in 2014, the lethality of the attacks has more than tripled from 2005[3]. Afghan security forces should dig in and copy the well-tested model of its South Asian neighbors.

Afghanistan has made substantial gains in combatting suicide terror, but the end is not in sight. Although the situation is a far cry from the pre-2000s civil war which left Kabul in ruins, the Afghan frontier is far from pacified. The question of how to deal with the Taliban remains, and the Afghan government cannot be caught sleeping at the wheel. Taliban control and strength varies incredibly across the country; while only 11 percent of districts are controlled by insurgents, 29 percent of them are contested by such extremists.[4] The Taliban fight the government openly in provinces from Ghazni to Kunar, sometimes winning major offensives, and last month began a new offensive in Kunduz which was long considered secure.[5] Whether or not the center can sustain itself depends largely on the government’s ongoing approach to counterinsurgency.

(Despite gains, the casualty count remains relatively flat and lethality has climbed. Source: Chicago Project on Security and Threats) 

The current Afghan model is ill suited to fighting the Taliban. Afghan central command practices a traditional, centralized model of COIN (Counterinsurgency)[6]. Even their allies in the US admit that Afghan COIN is reactive, allowing insurgents to disrupt the rule of law and capture entire districts before being scared back into hiding by the military.[7] The Afghan military relies on static checkpoints and an immobile force structure that makes hitting security targets easier. This top down model of COIN makes dealing with the particular nuances and mobility of the Taliban difficult, and deprives the Afghan military information collection and building community trust[8]. In nations such as Afghanistan which have dispersed populations not conducive to fixed defenses, the government loses against the insurgency 75 percent of the time[9].

The Taliban are well poised to take advantage of the weaknesses in the Afghan military. The insurgents are highly mobile, have varying levels of ties to their local communities, and have proven their ability to exploit the communication problems that arise from centralization. As recently as last month, the Taliban launched a massive attack in the Kandahar Province, which was previously thought to be stable, and killed 15 Afghan soldiers before security responded.[10] These attacks are made possible by shock troops, motorcycle brigades, and a willingness to retreat and move to more opportune areas when faced with opposition.[11] The Taliban’s mobility has allowed them to regain many of their losses over the last ten years.

In the Kashmir conflict, India has faced an insurgent dilemma of its own. While very different than the Afghan situation, there are some important similarities to make note of. First, India had for years waged an unsuccessful conventional COIN operation against the militants, who included the Hizbul Mujahadeen and the JKLF. Pakistan has been accused of funding and training these groups in the 1990s, when they also supported the Taliban[12]. Both groups engage in asymmetric war against much larger government forces. Much like the Taliban, the Kashmiri groups are Islamist, but at the same time represent a wide variety of interests with many power brokers and centers of influence. For years, the Kashmir conflict killed thousands a year with little sign of abating. Today the Kashmiri conflict results in fewer than 100 annual fatalities, a testament to innovative counterinsurgency.

Why was India able to wrestle control of the Kashmir valley from militants? Many unrelated factors played their parts, and shifts in Pakistani funding in the 2000s certainly helped starve the terror groups. On the Indian side, one of the most important developments was the government’s pivot towards a less centralized, more group-level COIN strategy which focused on exploiting divisions within the ranks of their opponents. This strategy relied on using tensions between the Hizbul Mujahedeen and their rival militias as well as internal discord within the insurgents to generate government-collaborators who could specialize in counterinsurgency. The Indian government offered asylum and money for defection, and created a program for former insurgents to join the government.

The process of creating paramilitary forces from former militants is known as ‘fratricidal flipping,’ because the insurgents ‘flip’ to fight for the government. [13] The Indian government generated a force of pro-state paramilitaries by providing safety and incentives to encourage defection among militants, putting the Hizbul Mujahedeen on the defensive.[14] The new government paramilitaries, known as Ikhwanis, brought knowledge of insurgent operating procedures and hideouts to the table. They also leached support off of the groups who were still fighting by providing an alternative armed group for recruits to join. With their special skills, the Ikhwanis played a crucial role in stabilizing the Kashmir valley before the 1996 elections.[15] Subsequent pressure and government outreach led to the defection of senior Mujahedeen officials, who used their information to help the Indian government greatly diminish their enemy.

In India’s other long-running conflict, the ongoing Maoist insurgency, the government has employed similar ‘flipping’ tactics. The Naxalite conflict has been called India’s “largest internal security threat”, and the rebels have shown remarkable resilience to conventional COIN.[16] In response, the military used incentives and payoffs to create the Salwa Judum counterinsurgency militia, which demonstrated success against the Maoists, although it was disbanded due to human rights violations.[17] These collaborators were willing to work with the Indian government because they had either become disillusioned with the Naxalites or wanted to put an end to the violence that had engulfed their regions. Although the program was tainted by accusations of incompetence and civilian killings, the premise of using Naxalite violence to generate an equally mobile, local counterinsurgency force reduced violence in the Manipur and Jharkhand.[18] Future attempts at localized counterinsurgency should include more strict oversight over paramilitaries to ensure compliance with human rights standards.

Back in Afghanistan, the strategy of flipping militants is known to work. During the Afghani civil war of the 90s, alliances shifted rapidly between groups as defectors tried to end up in the winning coalition.[19] It was not until Taliban victory seemed inevitable that regional warlords from around the country lined up to join their movement. While the Taliban is portrayed as a monolithic enemy, it is worthwhile to note that the insurgent group is actually comprised of a wide array of ethnic groups with different political interests. Warlords have a vested interest in getting payouts and joining the winning side of a conflict. When the circumstances are right, some may be persuaded to leave the Taliban and join the fold. In the past, when the government has demonstrated strength and the willingness to accept collaborators, insurgents have been receptive.[20] Such a strategy requires a concerted effort on the part of the government to provide credible, substantive incentives to potential defectors.

In order to make flipping successful, the government of Afghanistan needs to learn from India’s experience. For instance, much as Pakistan is accused of supporting the Hizbul Mujahadeen, their alleged support for the Afghan Taliban could pose a problem for COIN. This is because receiving funding from an external sponsor lowers the opportunity cost of maintaining an insurgency. Backing from within Pakistan makes buying guns and paying soldiers easier, and makes joining militant groups more lucrative[21]. This raises the potential cost for programs that seek to flip insurgents through providing cash incentives, because the money loses effectiveness as the insurgency becomes more profitable. Afghan President Ashraf Ghani famously said “[if the Taliban] had no sanctuary in Pakistan, they wouldn't last a month.”[22] 

That being said, India’s COIN was able to overcome the external sponsorship of the Kashmiri rebels. For Afghanistan, this might entail supplementing cash payments for flipping with nonmonetary assistance. Examples of programs that seek to demobilize or flip militants range from job training to promises of immunity to offering protection to their families and ethnic groups. In Afghanistan, warlords may be tempted to defect if the government assists them in local political struggles. In order to overcome the external sponsorship of the Taliban and make flip insurgents, the Afghan government needs to research and target specific warlords who are dissatisfied with the status quo political and security situation. At the same time, the government ought to put international pressure on the Taliban’s external sponsors in order to isolate them as much as possible, and increase their internal discord. It is easier to flip poorer, more desperate rebels with offers of joining the winning coalition.

Afghan COIN needs to take into account the nuances of local politics in order to be successful. Based on the local political context, approaches such as cash payouts, guarantees of security, and exploiting local patronage networks can be successful at fragmenting militias. A certain number of militants will likely never demobilize because they are ideological hard-liners who believe in the cause.[23] True Ideologues may resist attempts at buyouts, and fight until the end. That being said, in many regions warlords may be willing to turn their backs on the Taliban in exchange for protection, and soldiers may join the government if offered higher pay and immunity. Such an approach gives Afghanistan the ability to make peace with soldiers who are weary of fighting, and ends the centralized COIN model which is doomed to failure. Much like in India with the Hizbul Mujahedeen, the Afghan Taliban is only as strong as the coalition it can put together. If the government can splinter the Taliban, it may provide the momentum and manpower needed to bring peace to the region.


[1] Rasmussen, Sune Engel. "At Least Seven Killed in Suicide Bombing at High-profile Funeral in Kabul." The Guardian. Guardian News and Media, 03 June 2017. Web. 13 June 2017.

[2] Chicago Project on Security and Threats, Suicide Attack Database (2013-2016)

[3] Ibid

[4] Roggio, Bill. "Taliban Controls or Contests 40 Percent of Afghan Districts: SIGAR." FDD's Long War Journal. N.p., 1 May 2017. Web. 13 June 2017.

[5] "Taliban Back on the Offensive in Kunduz." Long War Journal. Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, 9 May 2017. Web. 13 June 2017.

[6] Metra Mehran and Abdul Waheed Ahmad. "The Problem With Afghanistan's Counterinsurgency." The Diplomat. The Diplomat, 29 July 2016. Web. 15 June 2017.

[7] “Enhancing Security and Stability in Afghanistan” Department of Defense, December 2015

[8] Lyall, Jason, and Isaiah Wilson III. “Rage against the Machines: Explaining Outcomes in Counterinsurgency Wars.” International Organization 63, no. 1 (Winter 2009): 67-106

[9] Libicki, Ben Connable Martin C. "How Insurgencies End." (n.d.): n. pag. RAND Corporation, 2010. Web. 15 June 2017.

[10] Shah, Taimoor, and Mujib Mashal. "Taliban Kill at Least 15 at Afghan Army Outpost in Kandahar." The New York Times. The New York Times, 26 May 2017. Web. 14 June 2017.

[11] Siddique, Abubakar, Mohammad Ilyas Dayee, and Safiullah Stanekzai. "Taliban Overruns Strategic District In Southern Afghanistan." RFE/RL. Ghandara, 26 Aug. 2015. Web. 14 June 2017.

[12] "A NATION CHALLENGED: THE SUSPECTS; Death of Reporter Puts Focus On Pakistan Intelligence Unit". The New York Times. 25 February 2002. Retrieved 20 May 2010.

[13] “Between a Rock and a Hard Place: Insurgent Fratricide, Ethnic Defection, and the Rise of ProState Paramilitaries.” Journal of Conflict Resolution, Vol. 56, No. 1 (February 2012)

[14] Ibid

[15] Swami, Praveen. India's Forgotten Army. The Hindu, 14 Sept. 2003. Web. 13 June 2017.

[16] "India's Deadly Maoists." The Economist. The Economist Newspaper, 26 July 2006. Web. 15 June 2017.

[17] Shapoo, Sajid Farid. "Red Salute: India's Maoist Maelstrom and Evolving Counterinsurgency Doctrines." Small Wars Journal. N.p., 8 July 2016. Web. 14 June 2017.

[18] Chidambaram “All praise for SPOs” The Economic Times, 8 January 2009

[19] Christia, Fotini. Alliance Formation in Civil Wars. Cambridge: New York: Cambridge

University Press, 2012

[20] Semple, Michael, and Fotini Christia. "Flipping the Taliban." Foreign Affairs. N.p.,9 Feb. 2010. Web. 13 June 2017.

[21] Collier, Paul, and Anke Hoeffler. “Greed and Grievance in Civil War.” Oxford Economic Papers

56, no. 4 (October 2004)

[22] Miglani, Sanjeev. "Afghan President Says Taliban Wouldn't Last a Month without Pakistan Support." Reuters. Thomson Reuters, 04 Dec. 2016. Web. 15 June 2017.

[23] Oppenheim, Ben, Abbey Steele, Juan F. Vargas, and Michael Weintraub. “True Believers,

Deserters, and Traitors: Who Leaves Insurgent Groups and Why.” Journal of Conflict

Resolution 59, no. 5 (August 1, 2015)